With NBA playoff teams looking to shore up their lineups with call-ups and tanking teams looking for cheap, young talent, the best of the best aren’t quite heading over to earn a quick buck over the chance for a promotion to the big league. Quite frankly, this conference’s crop of imports hasn’t exactly wowed PBA fans.
Part of it is the format – with this being the “big” import conference, the best 6’9” dudes are most likely swingmen and wings looking to make the NBA or a European squad, leaving PBA teams to choose amongst “tweeners” and undersized big men. Moreover, some of the bottom teams who had the opportunity to pick imports of unlimited height have gone as big as possible, but possibly sacrificing skill for height and might.
Thornton, as many of you probably know, was actually a first round draft pick in the NBA and actually played big minutes for the Clippers, Wizards, and Warriors during his brief NBA career. It wasn’t long ago that some of you might have picked him up to boost your fantasy basketball teams.
Out of all the imports currently plying their trade, Thornton by far has the best pedigree. He’s a legitimate 6’9” wing, allowing him to pull up for a fairly decent jump shot over his height-challenged PBA compatriots.
Last Saturday, he put up a somewhat quiet 39 points – if that’s even possible. Ironically, this is actually his career high in the NBA.
Here’s his stat line after three games this conference:
|Al Thornton (3 games)
Despite the gaudy numbers, NLEX has failed to put up a complete game and come home with a victory. In a conference where only the top eight teams make the playoffs, NLEX has to get its act together soon if it wants to “carry over its winning tradition” from its days in the D-League.
That being said, Al may have the pedigree and the game to back up his smack talk, but the question is, does he have the leadership to bring NLEX along for a playoff ride?
The first challenge may be fit. NLEX is full of guys who want to go 1v1, as Asi, Mac and even KG Canaleta tend to break off plays to “get theirs”. Unfortunately, this is Thornton’s forte and just like the classic imports of old, he’s being tasked to carry the load offensively.
The problem with this is that it takes the ball out of the hands of Jonas Villanueva and Asi Taulava. As I’ve pointed out before, Jonas is actually one of the best point guards in using ball screens in terms of FG%. While he is great at the catch and shoot, isolation plays for Thornton take away from Villanueva’s strength as a playmaker.
Meanwhile, when Thornton is wheeling and dealing on one side of the floor, Asi may be making “tampo” on the weakside. Yes, Asi’s a great offensive rebounder, but he’s also a guy who has been unhappy if he isn’t given enough touches in the post. Last Saturday against Alaska, Asi posted a season low five points on just six FGA – one of which was a long jumper at the end of the shot clock. If Thornton continues to dominate the ball, we may hear some grumblings from the Rock.
The second big challenge is whether or not Thornton can lead his team defensively. NLEX struggled last conference, as they were second to last in defensive rating, posting a sloppy 100.9.
That problem was mostly two-fold. First, their guards struggle to defend the pick & roll – a staple of any offense in the PBA. Second, this problem is exacerbated by Taulava, who likes to stay back in the paint instead of showing on said ball screens. The question is, can Thornton make up for these deficiencies? Thornton was tasked to guard big wings in the NBA, but he will have to play a bigger role in covering the holes of his less athletic teammates. His patience will be telling.
Last conference, NLEX finished 10th out of 12 teams. While this was enough to sneak into the playoffs thanks to the friendly format, this conference will be much tougher. Seeing as how Kia (KIA!!!!!!!) was able to pull off an upset against SMB last week, and judging by Blackwater’s peskiness against TNT and sudden win over the champs, I don’t think those teams will be pushovers this conference. Can NLEX grab four wins to book a ticket into the playoffs? It may all be in Al Thornton’s hands.